Saturday, 14 March 2015

Strangers in the World

The apostle Peter’s first letter is addressed, ‘To God’s elect, strangers in the world.’ Does it feel like that to you? If you are a Christian do you find yourself out of step with the world? The world, of course, is familiar to us. We know how it operates, we engage with it, and we negotiate our way through it in our every-day lives but, ultimately, Peter seems to be saying it is alien to us. In his second letter to Christians in Corinth the apostle Paul insisted, ‘we regard no-one from a worldly point of view,’ and goes on to describe Christians as, ‘Christ’s ambassadors.’ (2 Corinthians 5:16&20)

As ambassadors, we may be adept in the arts of tact and conciliation, speaking the truth with ‘gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15) yet we never lose sight of where our duties lie, of who has first call on our loyalties. As Paul makes clear, we don’t look at things by the standards and values of the world, but by those of the one we now represent. We are to represent his interests in the world, ‘God making his appeal through us.’ (2 Corinthians 5:20)

Sometimes it can feel as though we are overwhelmed by the world, and we find it easier to ‘go with the flow.’ Perhaps that is why Peter writes as he does to ‘God’s elect…throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,’ in other words scattered among the nations and in danger of being overwhelmed. That is one of the pitfalls of representing one country, or one business from one country, to another; going native. Sometimes called ‘clientism,’ or ‘localitis,’ it is when a representative comes to regard the people and officials of the host country as ‘clients,’ when he or she defends the interests of these ‘clients’ as though they are the employers

Of course, in many respects, this can make life, at least in the short term, easier. The people with whom you have to do every day seem somehow easier to get along with once you see things from their point of view, while the people you represent seem distant and out of touch with the way things are, ‘on the ground.’ Ultimately, however, as Peter reminds us, we are, ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ (1 Peter 2:9)

We do things God’s way, see things God’s way, and we describe things as God’s ambassadors, however diplomatic we feel we need to be. Peter reminds us that we are ‘chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and the sprinkling of his blood.’ (1 Peter 1:2) It is no accident that we find ourselves ‘strangers in the word,’ for God the Father has chosen to make us citizens of a heavenly kingdom. He has done this by a work of the Spirit that sanctifies us, prepared us for that citizenship and calling, and he has given us the work of obedience to Jesus Christ. Our ways now are as alien to the world as are the world’s ways to us.

This means that only other Christian believers properly know and understand what it is to be chosen, an ambassador for Christ, sanctified, and striving to obey that call. Only other Christians fully appreciate what it means when we obey Jesus and reject the world’s self-centred-ness. Such a course is alien to the world and ever has been. Just like those early Christians, first in Jerusalem, then scattered across Asia Minor and ultimately the world, we finally have each other in this world because the rest simply don’t ‘get it.’  Paul writes in his first Corinthian letter:

‘This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things  that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgements about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgement: For who can know the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 2:13-16)

Think of it! We even have a different ‘language’ we speak, ‘expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words,’ a language the world considers unintelligible, foolishness. We have the mind of Christ with which to discern and make sound judgements concerning the affairs of his kingdom, and a language in which we express that kingdom business. But remember that, ‘it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe’ (1 Corinthians 1:21) Our speaking, acting, and doing are not futile, for those who believe may come to know that language, to have that mind, to be ambassadors of the one who chose them, just as once we did. The question is, are we speaking the language of the God who chose us, uttering spiritual truths as we go about kingdom business? Or have we fallen victim to clientism, speaking the language of the world that is so familiar to us?

The world doesn’t speak our language, doesn’t know or accept Christ, and is proving increasingly hostile to his kingdom and rule. It is surely up to us, we who have the mind of Christ, who speak the language of spiritual things, to stand together in advancing the work of the kingdom entrusted to our care in this generation, and for the benefit of the next.

Friday, 13 March 2015

The Ghost of my Wife (Do You Believe..?)

Last night I saw the ghost of my wifeMike and Ann

in the lawless hours

when decent folk sleep

something roused me and made me aware

of somebody moving

a foot on the stair.

In that paralysed, half-sleeping, half-waking time

when you just have to move

but you can't, though you try.

Then a constable's whistle, the sound of swift flight

made its way to my ear

in the dead of the night.

'I must go and see, see if all is secure,'

but I lay there pinned by

half-sleeping, half-waking.

Then a knock at the door of the chamber once still

strengthened resolve

and I rose from my bed.

'Who are you?' I cried, 'Who are you,' again

the door slowly opened and

the spectre stood there.

'Who are you?' I cried, 'Who are you,' once more

as she held out

a flask of silver and black.

Silver and black the colours she wore,

Not showing her face

as, insistent, she came.

Silver and black, splendid and terrible,

insistent I take it

the flask that she bore.

I called out, more earnest, 'My husband!' she cried

my wife, now behind me

on our bed by my side.

I turned, and again, and the vision was gone

that woke me so late

weaving argent and ebony.

Now, as I sit in the pale morning light

sleepless, reviewing

events of the night

there's a step on the stair outside my door

my spine stiffens and I,

fearing once more

to waken her twice whisper in fright,

'Who are you

that spirit who troubles my night?'

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Do You Know Who You Are?

Have you noticed that some people go through this life with a clear idea of who they are and what they are about? Others go through life not knowing who they are, just going from one day to the next, one situation to the next, frequently surprised by the demands life places on them.

When I was a young man I signed up to a government scheme designed to train people in various trades and skills that might give them permanent employment. Five days a week, for six months, I went to a large industrial unit that had been divided into ‘sections,’ each section dedicated to a different skill. There was carpentry, stone-masonry and bricklaying, vehicle maintenance, and more. Even some of the staff in the offices were brushing up on their skills.

It was a useful place to work if you had any practical problems. After a weekend of Destroy-It-Yourself, these different sections would get their visits from people seeking advice and guidance on whatever project they had in hand. Both trainees and instructors might, at some point, wander into an adjacent section with a question, a cry for help. They would seek out the instructor and, if that person wasn’t there, the most senior trainee, who was bound to have some ideas.

I worked in the painting and decorating section. One day two instructors walked in and asked to see our instructor. He was away from the section so they asked for the senior trainee. I had seen this happen many times but I was not prepared for what happened next; everyone pointed at me! The two men walked over and explained their dilemma. A wall had been demolished making two rooms into one, an arch had been constructed and they wanted to know how to wallpaper around the arch.

As they spoke I gathered my thoughts. I took them over to a chalk-board and explained, with diagrams, that there were two ways of doing it, depending on the aesthetics, and they had to choose. I had done it! I had instructed instructors. It must have worked out since they didn’t come back and complain. But, until they came over and spoke to me, I didn’t know I was the senior trainee on the floor. If the subject had come up in conversation I might well have realised, and said, ‘I suppose that’s me.’ But I had failed to realise the full implication of what I was until I was faced with the challenge of being what I was.

We can be like that in our Christian lives. You attend church, listen with interest to sermons, participate in small group discussions, and settle into a Christian routine. You don’t know it, but you are becoming increasingly competent in Christian ways. One day someone suggests you might want to take on a responsibility at church, perhaps teaching, or a leadership role. ‘Who, me!’ You are stunned that someone should think of you in that way. You don’t know who you are and face the challenge of stepping up, or stepping back.

Or someone in work, or at the school gates, begins a conversation about religion, asks serious and thoughtful questions. People know that you go to church and all eyes turn on you, as though you might have something to say. You know you should be able to say something sensible, even wise, and you are faced with the choice; step up, or step back.

Where are you in the course of your Christian life? Maybe you have just started the course and right now you are not that senior trainee. God has so much to show you, to teach you, and perhaps you will be able to step up sooner than you think. Maybe you are along some way on your course, you are enjoying the journey, not thinking too far ahead. Maybe, like me, you are at a place where it is no longer theory but you haven’t realised it. It might be a formal invitation to lead. It could be a less experienced Christian looking for a spiritual friend. It could be an opportunity to share your faith, listen with sympathy and counsel with wisdom.

Others are looking to you now, so what will you do?

Do you know who you are?

Monday, 12 January 2015

Everyone Wants to be a Reformer

There is far too much individualism in the church today and not enough loyalty to the body, with all its faults and failings. I sigh when I hear yet another conversation peppered with, 'the trouble with the church.' The trouble with that statement is that you are talking about yourself when you say it. It is ironic that people will insist that the church is 'the people, not the building,' but then stand apart, as though they are not part of that people, and say, 'the trouble with the church.'

I have lost count of the individuals I know who appear to be waiting for the church to catch up with them. These are often the ones who go off on a tangent, start a church in the bottom of a skip, or up a tree, or some such place, and then land on a town or city and, without so much as a nod to what is already there, upset the established community with their 'anointing.' Then, sadly, they don't go where the need is greatest but where the takings are richest.

Everyone, it seems, wants to be a Reformer, with the church, in their minds, bent to their particular way of looking at things as they start again, again, again. Like Petrocelli's house (that dates me) their church is all foundation and no superstructure, all fundamentals, no discipleship and growing. I have friends who have come out of cults and who look back with regret at what they were caught up in, yet look forward with reproach at the church that doesn't quite fit with the model of church in their imagination. But its the only place they will find that church, in their imagination.

The church is a saved people, not a correct people. We are not always right, we are right with God because of Christ.

Have you been hurt? Felt rejected? Join the club, we all of us who have been around long enough know about the 'happenings' in church and have felt that way too. I have been defamed, lied to and lied about, misunderstood, looked on with suspicion, and even driven out of one church whose members still treat me with contempt because of the lies of a leader. I have punched the wall, screamed at the sky, and reproved the offenders in my time. But one thing I find, the church is God's plan.

It includes some right clowns, numptys, and downright mischief-makers, but it is God's plan. Even among those who seem like they pretty much have it together, there are blind spots, prejudices, compromises, phobias, fears, and failures. There are 'heart Christians' and 'head Christians,' those who insist on one form of church organisation over another, and those who seem beyond organising, those who steam ahead without a thought for the effect they have, and those who are so timid they would never grow if they weren't discipled and led..

Leaders are the best and the worst of us all. They are due double honour the Bible tells us, and they do sterling work that goes mostly unnoticed and unappreciated. They are also clay vessels, like the rest of us. From their position of leadership, they can hide their failings behind pulpits, agendas, and programmes. They can make enormous sacrifices for the good of the church, and they can demand unreasonable loyalty when what they need is love and friendship in their frailty. They disappoint us mostly because we expected too much of them in the first place.

I am reminded of two things about the church. Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, and Paul, for all the trouble 'the church' gave him, wrote of her with affection and pride. At a time when every religious story seems negative, and every negative story, turns people against Christians, we should be proud of the church, fiercely defending her, being honest about her faults but vocal about her virtues. She is the people I meet every Sunday morning, the eyes I look into as they look back at me searching for assurance and hope, the encouragers and those seeking encouragement, the sacrificial servants of the saints, the quiet workers, house group leaders, Sunday Club teachers, evangelists and door-knockers, welcomers, deacons, elders, preachers, teachers, friends and helpers who care so much they make a difference.

If we stopped looking at the church as an institution, which is not what I mean when I used the word established, and started looking at it as one church with many facets, and those made up of flawed, broken, sinners, then we will learn to exercise more patience, have more ambition for her. In all that, there still must be guardianship and correction, challenges to error, and restoration to truth, but it is family business and leaving the family helps no one.

My point (see previous post Not Another Church) stands, in that the church is established in an area and those coming in should have the Christian decency to talk to those 'established' churches, while those 'established' churches should do all they can to encourage any legitimate initiative to to further the work of the kingdom. There is a good model to follow in Acts 15.

I was asked recently what lessons I had learned from leadership.

I have learned that just because I think something is a good idea doesn't mean God thinks it is. Some problems could be solved simply by realising that one thing.

I have learned that God speaks through the leadership to the church and through the church to the leadership. We are in this together and when we walk away (and I have had my moments) we simply disqualify ourselves from that process and end up justifying our non-involvement by insisting that God speaks through neither because the world and his wife are apostate; but he speaks through me and my mates at the bottom of this skip where we are starting again without all the fuss of accountability.

I have learned that local church is the hope of our families, friends, neighbours, community, city and world. Here is where God speaks to us and through us to everyone else.

I have learned that its hard to let go of my own cherished ideas, to serve a bigger cause by putting unity above the flavour I prefer. But no one said it would be easy, on the contrary, we have been sufficiently warned. Christianity is not for wimps that's for sure. What was said is that it would be worth it.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Not Another Church!

MegaphoneThey were standing on the street corner handing out leaflets, and ‘preaching’ to passers-by. Their dark suits, white shirts, and conservative ties made them easily identifiable. I went over to speak to them. Declining the offer of a tract, I assured them that I was already a Christian and had just come over to say hello. I told them the name of my church and they told me they were with a local Brethren congregation.

“Have you been involved in some of the city-wide inter-church initiatives?” I asked, already knowing the answer I was likely to get. They hadn’t heard of it and looked puzzled at the idea that there should be any initiative beyond that of their own church.

A friend had a similar experience in the city. Seeing someone handing out Christian literature he, like me, went over for a chat. The man had come to the city from a Brethren congregation in the south of England.

“Are you working alongside the Brethren churches in the city?” my friend asked.

“Are there Brethren churches here?” was the response. In other words, these two groups, both from the same denomination and tradition, apparently knew nothing of each other’s existence. You might say this is typical of these particular believers and there is, indeed, an unhealthy exclusivity about Brethren churches. But this failure to acknowledge other churches is not, by any means, confined to them.

One of the questions that come up in conversation with my Christian friends is, why do groups come into our city to establish churches where we already have so many? Why don’t they go to areas outside the city that desperately need churches? And why do these incomers target the areas of our city that are already well served by established and, it may be said, well-heeled congregations? Why don’t they go to the areas where the need is greatest?

It might be argued that there is something symbiotic about the whole business.Go where the success is and you will be more likely to succeed. It certainly can cause bad feeling, leading to charges of ‘sheep-stealing’ as a new congregation benefits in part from the disaffection felt by some in an established church. It also encourages church-hopping, where those who find the long-term challenges of being part of a Christian community too much, and the attraction of a new start irresistible.

So why do ‘incomers’ take it for granted that the place to be is where everybody else is already established? Is it simply laziness? Is there a conscious attempt to begin by plundering the congregations of other churches? I think it is more basic and more troubling still. There is an attitude prevalent across Evangelical and Charismatic churches that says God is moving in our day, but he is only moving in and through us, through me and mine.

There has been, in my almost thirty years as a Christian, a catchphrase trotted out every time any innovation is introduced and challenged in the church, from guitars in Sunday services, to exercising the more spectacular spiritual gifts, to claims of prophetic anointing; ‘God is doing a new thing.’ It has become a trope in some circles, even a test of orthodoxy. In light of it almost anything may be instituted as from God, and Christians dare not question the new thing God is doing at pain of being regarded as dead in their tradition.

It is this attitude, this high-handed approach, I suggest, that motivates the churches that seek to establish themselves where there is ample Christian activity. Its not that they don’t see other churches, nor that they don’t appreciate the need outside and in other parts of the city. Its that they perceive a need where churches are already established because they judge these churches as somehow falling short, of not being the answer the new church is just bound to be because, in them, God is doing a new thing.

With this attitude they fall back on that other old saw, ‘We must get back to first century church!’ It is a model of church that is more real in their imagination than ever it was in this world, but its what they are determined to achieve anyway. It as though they have never read the New Testament and never seen the problems prevalent even in the first century. I am reminded of the saying that ‘the good old days,’ when they were happening, were known as ‘these trying times.’

Having decided that the rich, actually well-served, area of the city is in need of saving from itself, they view it as virgin territory, a mission field. They convince themselves that everyone there should be pleased that this group of pioneer Christians should choose to turn up here, pitch their tent among us and bless us with the message they bring, and with the innovations they insist are better than our bad habits and dead traditions.

There is a naivety about the whole business, certainly, but we must not be sentimental about it. It is damaging to the body of Christ, a threat to the unity in the Spirit that Paul calls for, and it creates and perpetuates bad feeling between churches. Because, make no mistake, if this ‘new thing’ survives, becomes established, especially if it moves from community centres to a permanent building,from a mission-minded group to a mature Christian congregation, others will come after them and despise them as much as they once despised others, seeing in the now established church dead tradition. They will, one day, find themselves asking the questions addressed here and perhaps fail to see the irony.

Paul writes to the troubled Corinthian church, “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” (1 Cor.11:19)

Factions are regrettable, deplorable, but they do serve to test us and distinguish those who are faithful to God’s purposes. This is not, however, an endorsement of factions in the church. In his letter to the Philippian church Paul writes of the view mature Christians should take of things, going on to say, “And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” (Philippians 3:15-16)

The writer to the Hebrews cautions us against laying foundations where they are already laid (Hebrews 6:1) and Paul writes:

‘It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather it is written, “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.”’ (Ro.15:20-21)

There is a troubling trend in the 21st century church that sees Christians despise anything and everything that is ‘established’ and go off to follow their own Christian way. ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’ they insist. But you do! Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian, but to ‘be a Christian’ you have to be part of the wider Christian community, be churched, part of a growing group of believers. This individualism is singularly unbiblical, spiritually unhealthy, largely uncalled for, but all-too-often encouraged by churches that set themselves up over and against established churches in the name of innovation, novelty, and some ‘new thing’ they imagine they alone have got hold of.

If you are coming to our city you are most welcome, but don’t seek to establish what is already here. Rather, put your weight behind what is already established. If you do see a need then have the courteously to meet and share your vision with other church leaders in the city. Maybe you can work together with them, benefit from their experience, gain strength from their support. Best of all, go where the need is greatest, where the Word of God is not well established. There is a mission field outside our large conurbations, as well as in the poorer areas within them. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Darwin, Creationism, and the Galileo Question

I used to sell encyclopaedias for a living, among the many and varied jobs in my life. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, to be precise. The cheapest set was around £1,100 and the leather-bound set some £3,500. Of course, that was a long time ago, I don’t know how much the last ever printed sets, produced in 2010, would have cost.

For that sort of money you might expect some pretty accurate and trustworthy, unbiased and factual articles. In a piece in The Atlantic announcing the end of printed copies Katherine Mangu-Ward observed,

“The beginning of the end for the authoritative print encyclopedia was [a] 2005 Nature study, which found that in entries about science topics Wikipedia contained an average of 3.86 mistakes per article--but that Britannica contained 2.92 mistakes per article, putting the "free encyclopedia anyone can edit" within earlobe flicking distance of the shelf-bending gold standard.”Wales see England

Bibliophiles and especially autodidacts have always entertained romantic notions about encyclopaedias and reference works in general but they are not, nor were they ever, infallible. I have a two volume Odhams Encyclopaedia dated 1953 in which the entry for Mormons reads, “followers of Joseph Smith, hold that Christ, Mohammed, Smith and Brigham Young are manifestations of the Deity and create souls.” Need I say this is not what Mormons believe? And, of course, there is always the classic Britannica entry for Wales from some 150 years ago which read, “Wales see England.” (Reader see right)

Perhaps Clfton Fadiman was right when he wrote in his introduction to The Treasury of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “The very idea of an encyclopaedia is crazy. Even if condensed, how can all that we know (What is “"’all’? What is ‘we know’?) be funnelled into a set of books bound in brown buckram? Absurd…”

Yet, here we are in a new century with digital versions of what once was confined to print. Today, everyone’s go-to reference work is Wikipedia and, although it has been a popular sport to sneer at it, as the Atlantic article shows, it is as reliable now as anything on your shelf, so long as you understand that whatever is on your shelf is less than perfect. These things inevitably reflect the prejudices, gaps in understanding, and errors and blind spots of even the most qualified contributors.

Encyclopaedists

When the great French Encyclopaedists of the 18th century produced their Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, it represented the thought of the Enlightenment and, according to Denis Diderot, its aim was to change the way people think. Indeed, it not only changed the way people think, it told people what to think inasmuch as it contained “information” that best advanced the Enlightenment cause. Regarding religion in all its forms as superstition, the invention of predatory priests, these enlightened rationalists portrayed Galileo as the symbol of the age to come and the victim of the last hurrah of Catholic intransigence in the face of scientific progress.

We all know the story. Galileo said the earth orbited the sun. The church panicked as Galileo removed the earth, and thereby the pope, from the centre of the universe. Galileo was put to the Inquisition, thrown into a cold, dank cell to rot and, according to popular lore, was made to recant what reason showed to be true. From William Lecky to Carl Sagan, from Bertolt Brecht to Bertrand Russell, the intelligentsia have portrayed the events surrounding Galileo as a clash between faith and reason, and Galileo as a martyr to rational humanism. The trouble is most of what we think we know about the story is untrue.

But what has this to do with Evolution and Darwinism? The connection is neatly summed up by the science writer James Newman in his book Science and Sensibility, vol.1:

“It will never be known when man first became convinced that he was of cosmic importance, but the date this pretension was disposed of is pretty clear. The De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium of Nicolaus Corpernicus was published in 1543…Nestled in the Mathematics…was a concept that put man in his place in the cosmos, as Darwin’s concept was to put him in his place on earth…Looking backward in history, it is easy for us to see that a moving earth and sun-centred universe gravely subverted Christian theology. If man’s abode was not at the centre of things, how could he be king?” (Quoted in Six Modern Myths, Philip J Sampson, IVP, 2000)

Simply put, just as Copernicus and Galileo had dragged the world kicking and screaming out of the Middle Ages, so Darwin had pulled it further into the light of scientific rationalism. Both stories show two protagonists, faith and reason, battling over the hearts and minds of men. Both elicit from those parties strong reactions. On the one hand a determination to bury religion once and for all under a mountain of reason, on the other a settled resolve to shore up the edifice of faith against the attacks of modernity. It is this latter that I particularly wish to address. Is there something we might gain, as Christians, from the story of Galileo that helps us deal intelligently with the story of Darwin?

Galileo and Darwin: The Real Problem

When Dante Alighieri wrote his Divine Comedy his location of hell in the bowels of the earth was based on the Aristotelian model of the universe that had held sway for a thousand years. According to Aristotle, the earth was not only at the centre, but at the bottom of the universe. The spheres above the earth were increasingly perfect while all matter, the detritus of creation, fell to earth, the most self-evidently corrupt planet. Science, or what was then called natural philosophy, held this view and the church, relying on what science told it, adhered to it, seeing this model reflecting the fallen nature of man.

Rather than removing the earth from its imperial position at the centre, the new thinking promoted it from what was considered its rightful and fallen place. The irony in the story as it has come down to us is truly rich. Far from being put in his place as Newman insists, man, sitting at the apex of the evolutionary tree, has become the measure of all things. His words define “life, the universe, and everything,” and he trucks no opposition in his stately splendour. This was the dilemma faced by the church which, informed by the scientific wisdom of the day, saw Divine Judgement in the order of things.

Just as, today, some Christians worry that evolutionary science challenges the very foundations of our faith, making the Genesis account a fiction, and the story of creation, fall, and redemption insupportable, so too did the church back then have to deal with the implications for the gospel of this new thinking. The Copernican revolution was as serious an issue for them as is evolution theory to many today. But, the earth isn’t at the centre of the universe (neither is our sun but that is a question for another time), our position in the cosmos doesn’t reflect our fallen nature. In light of this, has faith left the stage, leaving it to those who “know better?” Certainly not!

Remember, the church’s view of the cosmos in Galileo’s day was shaped and coloured as much by the science of its day as by its theology. The scientific community found it just as difficult as the church to accommodate this revolutionary world-view. But accommodation had to be made and we are better and wiser for it. In the same way, the church is informed today by a scientific community that is not always in agreement over evolution theory. Back then Copernicus and Galileo were vindicated, the faith community had to change its understanding, yet faith itself remained firm, Christ is still Lord, of the explicable as well as the inexplicable. Might it be also the case today that, far from needing to fear what science tells us, the church must be prepared to consider that its understanding of things might be mistaken? That, if such a revolution were admitted today, it needn’t shake our foundations any more now than it did then?

We will disagree, of course, but what is new in that? My aim is not to persuade someone to some form of evolutionary creationism. Rather, it is to encourage an openness to new understanding, instead of the usual dogmatism that portrays as enemies those that have, historically,often been friends, from Doctor Luke in the New Testament to the Christians today who, with a scientific background, might help us to think biblically about science, and scientifically about our Bibles.

If you want to read further on this subject I recommend Six Modern Myths, by Philip J Sampson, a book that ought to be on the book shelf of every thinking Christian. I am indebted to this book for the background to this post.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Christian in the Whovian World

Do you enjoy science fiction? I am not a great fan, although I enjoy the popular films and TV shows, and I know it brings a lot of fun into people’s lives. Science Fiction has a fascinating history and is said by some to date back to the fantastic Epic of Gilgamesh from some 2,000-3,000 BC. But modern science fiction dates back to between the 17th and 19th centuries, during the scientific revolution that brought us major discoveries in astronomy, physics, and maths. It really developed and bloomed in the 20th century.*

Famous works along the way include Thomas More’s Utopia (1516); Johannes Kepler’s The Dream (1834); Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610-11); Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726); Jane C Loudon’s The Mummy (1836); Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864); HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898); Conan-Doyle’s The Lost World (1912)

The 20th Century saw the introduction of pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and Weird Tales. In the 1930s Astounding Science Fiction magazine began to introduce us to Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Damon Knight. 1948 saw the publication of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. In the 1950s L Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer of dubious talent, gave us a new religion, Scientology. 1964 saw the publication of Frank Herbert’s epic Dune, and 1969 saw the production of Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Science fiction has given us the mad professor, experiments gone awry, morality tales, monsters, alien races, space flight, the inspiring hero, various dystopia, nightmare predictions, and idyllic futures. From More’s Utopia to Star Trek we have been given blue prints for a better society. From Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Orwell’s 1984 we are served up with warnings of dire consequences issuing from man’s folly.

Perhaps its most familiar and popular claim these days is that it ‘predicts’ technological developments in the real world. You can read about ten of them here. How true it is that science follows fiction is debatable. Writers get their ideas from somewhere and if you are writing science fiction then you are bound to populate your fiction with the more speculative ideas of science. But I am interested in the impact of the genre on faith and society, something that I find increasingly troubling.

There is no God in the world of science fiction. While there are gods of a kind, drawing on the legends of various cultures, they are more like super men than truly divine. Faith is sometimes depicted but only as a personal, or cultural phenomenon. There is no overarching ‘truth’ and finally no God to whom we are accountable. The cold scientific mind of this world declares, “We have no one to help us but ourselves.” Science fiction’s foundational ‘faith’ is scientism, and latterly Darwinism, the survival of the fittest. Man is the measure of everything, destroyed by his own hubris, or stepping back from the brink of destruction to emerge as a better species. While this approach gives the genre the widest scope of possibilities for inventing worlds, it also allows it to range across a wide variety of moralities.

Earlier examples of science fiction were often traditional cautionary tales for a bourgeoning scientific age, such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or political commentary such as Gulliver;s Travels, or Orwell’s 1984, and of course straight-forward adventures, such as The Lost World or, as the pulp title indicates, Fantastic Stories. From these you could learn life lessons, become politically engaged, or simply escape into another world. Today, however, there is a deliberate agenda to shape society after the image of the writers’ particular convictions and lifestyle. Three examples stand out for me.

The incredibly successful X-Men series of films has taken a familiar and relatively innocuous comic book story and infused it with an increasingly overt gay message, creating a gay parable. The film makers are quite frank about this and you can read more about it here. I am not a science fiction fan but have enjoyed these comic books as a boy and the film franchise, but I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the story lines and begin to understand why.

Another childhood favourite is the long-running British time/space series, Dr Who. I am old enough to remember watching the very first episode in black and white and following it through until it became a favourite for my grandchildren. It has enjoyed a fantastic renaissance in recent years, and I have enjoyed that too. But, again, its content seems to me to be increasingly agenda driven, again under the influence of the gay man responsible for the show’s revival, Russell T Davies. One of the Whovian characters, Captain Jack Harkness, is overtly gay and had his own spinoff series Torchwood. A now long-standing character in the Doctor’s world is a Madam Vastra, an evolved lizard/woman who lives in the Victorian era as a Sherlock Holmes type character. She enjoys a bizarre and intimate interspecies relationship with a human woman in which the lizard/woman is the ‘husband’. I remind you this is a children’s TV show.

Our thoughts and ideas, our convictions about society are being hijacked by means of seemingly shallow and harmless entertainment.

My third example is the work of the late Douglas Adams, whose antipathy to Christianity is legendary. He was brought up in a Christian home and, for the first eighteen years of his life, learned to take it pretty seriously. He then went through a familiar enough process of questioning which left him an agnostic. It was the insidious and fanatical influence of Richard Dawkins that tipped him into full-blown atheism. Be that as it may, Adams is responsible for his own life and work, something with which I am sure he would agree. When we look at the works of Douglas Adams it is as anti-Christianity as it could be. The facts are clear enough.

His Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy is a complete refutation and mockery of Christian tradition and teaching. The guide itself is a barely veiled parody of the Bible, its cover message a mockery of Christian assurance with its advice to the reader DON’T PANIC!

As the story develops we meet increasingly unlikely and bizarre characters involved in the most incredible and improbable circumstances that, significantly, have no explanation beyond mere chance. All is explained by a totally different account of how the earth came to be, and how thoroughly insignificant it is in the great scheme of things - though there isn’t really a scheme except that to destroy the earth to make way for a hyper-space bypass. The purpose for which it was “created” is as a computer to calculate the meaning of life, and whose calculations become increasingly comic and futile since life has no meaning. The message is clear, whatever you think is true isn’t and, whatever you think might be the most absurd and pointless truth is. Indeed, there is no truth, only existence then non-existence, as a brief encounter with a deluded whale falling to earth demonstrates.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency very effectively parodies faith. Gently is a detective who claims to solve crimes by means of recognising the interconnectedness of everything. The problem is, while he sees connections, others see nothing more than random facts and coincidences. Faith is writ large as the object of fun in this story. The cynical and dishonest Gently appears to have had an epiphany in which he comes to see this interconnectedness, which becomes his mission. The reader is meant to see reality through everyone else’s eyes, and they see random events. Here is the sinner converted to a delusion and reality represented by the sensible unbeliever. From Gently’s misguided faith, which seems real enough, that by some accident of Quantum Mechanics everything is meaningfully connected, to the ridiculous faith of an Electric Monk who seems to be programmed to be gullible, we are meant to see faith as untenable, even ridiculous.

Traditionally, science fiction can be said to be cautionary or aspirational. Today and in its most popular forms it is becoming insidious, its writers and proponents having a clear and clearly identifiable agenda to use science fiction as a vehicle for bringing into people’s lives philosophies that will be normalised by stealth, untested because it is entertainment.

Christians can cherish romantic notions of how our faith is going to be tested. We read and listen to accounts of believers, from Polycarp in the 2nd century to Christians in Syria today, who have been forced to choose between denying Christ, or being executed. We may one day face such a test ourselves, but there is another, more subtle test with us here today. As the world embraces diversity, choice, multi-culturalism, liberal values, an increasing intolerance of faith, and a sense of having no one to help us, guide us, or censure us but ourselves, Christians should ask what is influencing us? What values do I hold most dear? What ideas are being subtly introduced into my thinking, and that of my children, forming my worldview without my conscious consent?

Christianity is not the joyless, proscriptive religion many non-Christians imagine. Indeed, I have never said ‘yes’ anywhere so much as I do in church. The Christian faith does, however, speak truth about the world and to the world. It asks us to ‘choose this day whom you will serve’, cautions us against false and futile philosophies and points us to the author of all truth.

In the end, it is what we have done with knowledge of him that will be the test. The world is an incredible place to explore and enjoy. The world’s philosophies can be the greatest obstacle to our realising God’s truth and nothing insinuates the world’s philosophies into our lives and thinking better than the books we read, and the films we watch. By all means read, read widely, read for enjoyment, for fun, but read and view intelligently, guarding your hearts and minds from anything that threatens our faith and our relationship with Jesus. Be discerning and recognise that every day our resolve is being tested, not by a gun to our heads, but with a back door into our hearts and minds in what influences us.

 

*Science Fiction is now the fourth most lucrative genre in the publishing world, worth some $590million: 5th is horror worth $80m; 3rd, religion, $720m; 2nd, Crime/mystery, $728m; 1st, Romance/erotica $1.44Billion. Read more here.